The Meth Epidemic: confrontational documentary doesn’t quite go far enough in investigating a major social problem

Carl Byker, “The Meth Epidemic” (2011)

Having seen and reviewed “Winter’s Bone” last year, I was intrigued to find out more about the methamphetamine addiction epidemic rife in the United States since so little about methamphetamine abuse appears in the Australian mainstream media apart from public broadcasters like ABC and SBS. This is in spite of some information I found on the University of South Australia website which says that methamphetamine use in Australia is the highest in the English-speaking world (see http://www.unisa.edu.au/news/2011/210611.asp). Byker’s documentary for PBS Frontline couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The film follows the history of methamphetamine abuse and addiction in the US since the late 1960s when it was the drug of choice for biker gangs and was associated with the counter-culture, and the direct and indirect devastation the drug can cause to individuals’ health and psychology, and to their families and communities.

Put together fairly simply, the film mixes voice-over narration which lays out the structure and direction of the documentary’ coverage with interviews with medical researchers, police officers, counsellors, an ex-addict and representatives of pharmaceutical companies who either confirm and pad out the narrator’s statements or, in the case of the drug firms’ spokespeople, indict themselves as indifferent or caring more about their firms’ profits than about the effects their products might be having on families and society. The film pulls no punches in demonstrating the immediate effects of on-going meth abuse on users: one interviewee, Bret King, of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon state, hit on the idea of publishing before and after mug shot photographs of meth addicts to show the effects of the addiction on people’s health and appearance and the photographs shown in the film, all very close-up, can be very graphic.

More indirect effects of meth abuse get less attention and are more spoken of than demonstrated: police and social worker interviewees confirm the drug is associated with increased rates of crime, particularly property crime, and domestic violence. The descriptions and anecdotes alone are fairly gruesome so perhaps there’s no need for the physical evidence! The film then explores the issue of the supply of meth and how political control of the supply can be used to reduce the number of new addicts and control levels of addiction among current addicts. The film focusses on how pharmaceutical firms, in their quest for profits on cough medicines (which contain the active ingredient ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, similar in structure to meth and often used to create the stuff), have lobbied politicians against bills proposing to increase regulation of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Though the film does a detailed job of how the supply of meth can be controlled and denied to drug cartels, it does very little to show how and why people start using meth in the first place. Do people take it up because it increases concentration, self-confidence, bravery, sociability and sexual libido and suppresses appetite? It would have been worth some time for the film-makers to ask addicts and ex-addicts why they started using meth. Are people persuaded to take up meth in a party environment, do they start using it to conform with a crowd at school or college? We might also consider factors like social and economic background: are people in a certain social class or in areas of high unemployment, widespread poverty and few social services more likely to abuse meth? If factors influencing demand are not addressed, then controlling and restricting the supply of meth is only half the answer to controlling meth abuse. People may simply gravitate to a meth substitute whose supply may not be so easily controlled if the original reasons for meth addiction go ignored and aren’t dealt with.

There are further issues associated with meth abuse the film doesn’t touch, such as the fire danger to families and their neighbours that arises when people cook meth in kitchens using chemicals that become flammable when in contact with meth, causing explosions and house or apartment fires; and the poisoning of the building, the property and the soil, possibly even underground water. This is an issue briefly touched upon in Debra Granik’s film “Winter’s Bone” in which the main character investigates the burnt-out ruins of a house that used to be a meth lab while searching for her father. It becomes apparent that meth abuse is more than a public health and social problem; it is a potential environmental problem that could ruin soil, water, vegetation and animal life and make land unusable.

The film does an excellent job of showing how pharmaceutical firms’ indifference to the meth abuse problem in pursuit of sales and profits adds to the problem itself, and how politics itself is all too often dominated by self-interest and influence by lobby groups with loads of money. Unfortunately the scope of the film remains very narrowly restricted to the issue of controlling the supply of meth and not investigating the environment that encourages or causes people to take up meth and other drugs in the first place. Also the political and economic systems in place that allow drug firms to ignore the problems and devastation their products cause to individuals, families and communities should be challenged. Even the fact that we have ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and other drugs that have the potential to be misused in dangerous ways in non-medical contexts should call into question the kind of medicine and the approach to treating sickness and ensuring good health we have and use in modern society. Wouldn’t it be great if there were no need for people to use cough medicines – because people have been taught and trained to keep their bodies healthy and well?

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